By: Sean Kirst
Sid Hill (left), tadadaho of the Six Nations, and Tony Gonyea, an Onondaga artist, prepare for the return of some ancestral heirlooms in 2012, at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art. Gonyea crafted a new wampum belt, that was offered as a gesture of appreciation.
This article is republished courtesy Syracuse.com.
Sid Hill took the call a few months ago. It was a representative of the Washington Redskins football club, asking for Hill’s take on the national furor over whether the team’s nickname should be changed.
Hill didn’t like the tone of the call. “I felt like they were looking for something, that they wanted me to discredit Ray, and I wasn’t going to go there,” said Hill, referring to Ray Halbritter — the Oneida Indian Nation leader campaigning for the Washington team to discard the name “Redskins.”
The Onondagas, Hill said, face a stack of problems: “We have passport issues, we have tax issues, we have land issues,” he said. “I don’t think an emblem of a football team is on the top of the list.”
If team representatives want to talk about those larger questions, Hill told the caller, they ought to come to Onondaga.
He is tadadaho, or spiritual leader, of the Six Nations. That traditional position goes back to the foundations of the longhouse system of belief. While the Onondagas and Oneidas are ancestral neighbors in Central New York, Hill and others at Onondaga disagree philosophically with Halbritter on many policies, such as whether casino gambling belongs on native land.
Still, Hill is dismayed by the way Halbritter has come under attack during the debate about whether to jettison the Washington nickname. Some supporters of the team have questioned if Halbritter is truly Indian, a strategy Hill finds especially repugnant.
“The backlash Ray’s received is kind of scary,” Hill said. “It’s like they’re trying to discredit the witness.”
Halbritter once lived at Onondaga, Hill said. Despite their differences, Hill has no doubt about Halbritter’s lineage — and Hill doesn’t question his right to raise concerns about Washington’s nickname.
Besides, fundamentally, Hill feels the same way. “I don’t think it’s respectful,” he said of the word “redskins.” He can’t understand why that’s hard to figure out, just as he is unable to understand why the Cleveland Indians baseball team clings to Chief Wahoo, a cartoon image with stereotypical, exaggerated features.
The word “redskins” is a taunt, an insult, Hill said. He can’t imagine any visitor would ever walk onto the Onondaga territory and refer to someone as a “redskin.” It would not be interpreted with affection or humor, Hill said.
It would be seen as an attempt to inflict hurt.
If that is the reality, Hill wonders why team officials use that word as the nickname of an internationally known football club.
The Redskins have been sending out emails – entitled “Community Voices” – that contain quotes from people who both identify themselves as native and offer passionate support for the nickname. Tony Wyllie, a senior vice president with the club, sent an email in response to Hill’s comments:
“One thing is for sure,” Wyllie wrote. “The conversation with Mr. Hill helped us to see how important it is to listen and respect the points of view of all people, even those who disagree with us. We hope those who disagree with us will also be willing to listen and respect our point of view as well.”
Hill acknowledged there are members of the Six Nations who wear Washington caps or jackets, native people who embrace the nickname.
That’s their right, Hill said, even if he disagrees.
“I don’t think,” he said, “they fully understand the history of the word.”
Locally, the Onondagas worked with Syracuse University, in the 1970s, to retire the old Saltine Warrior mascot. Hill recalled that when he first took a job in construction, other workers immediately tagged him with the nickname they gave any native they met:
It was not offered with admiration, he said. So the Onondagas were pleased when the Syracuse Chiefs baseball club — named originally to reflect the area’s deep ties to the Six Nations — willingly discarded native logos or mascots and turned instead to the image of a locomotive engineer.
Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington team, vows he will not change the nickname. He maintains it honors native heritage, and that polling shows most native Americans agree. Hill said he can only speak to what he feels and what he hears from those around him.
What he finds troubling is the idea of any football team — or its supporters — attempting to turn native people against each other, a pattern Hill sees as all too familiar.
“With land or resources, whatever we’ve lost, it’s always been a ploy they used,” Hill said.
He sees it in the vitriolic personal attacks on Halbritter. And it was upsetting last year, he said, when the team paid for some elderly Navajo “code talkers” to come to a game, and then honored those World War II veterans on the field — where three of the men wore Redskins jackets.
“They’re using our own heroes to divide us,” said Hill, who offered a reflection on his family history: Both his parents were placed in government schools as children, where teachers tried to strip them of their language and traditions. His father, who later served in World War II, was deeply affected by what he witnessed on the battlefield.
Hill said his mother and father were wounded by the complex and often painful interaction between the Six Nations and the American government.
Think of what it means, Hill said, when the football team from the capital city calls itself the Redskins.
The question, he said, is hardly his priority. “I don’t know how many native people really care,” Hill said. Each day, on native land, many families do their best to cope with damage caused by poverty, alcoholism, neglect — and a sometimes overwhelming hopelessness.
A sports team, at such a time, is not that big a deal.
Yet when the team called to ask, Hill said what he believes. To him, the fierce reaction to any thought of changing “Redskins” underlines a national reluctance to step back and really attempt to understand. In that sense, he sees the nickname not as a symbol of heritage but of a time-honored American way:
“There’s money to be made on it,” said Hill, who expects that it won’t change.